What a wedding anniversary!
Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
96Trip End Apr 16, 2011
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As well as the 4 of us attempting the climb there were two other Brits, Matt and Tony, and a Japanese guy called Ken who seemed very nice but spoke about 4 words of English and no other languages that we could even attempt conversation in which made chatting a little difficult
We’d all opted for the 3 day climb which meant that today we were heading to base camp at 4,700m for an afternoon’s ice climbing before going on to high camp at 5,100m the following day in preparation for the summit climb on 11th April. Climbing a 6,000m mountain is something that we’ve wanted to do for a while and we’d been planning this with Claire & Richard for months so it was surreal to actually be leaving.
We’d met a lot of people recently who had done the same trip and stories varied from it being the best thing they had ever down to horrible tales of altitude sickness and having to turn back after the first night or, worse, with the summit in sight. Everyone, naturally, has nuggets of wisdom to share including some ridiculous claims. Most people did seem to agree however that eating is really important even if you don’t feel like it, trying to sleep as much as possible, taking it slowly and drinking tons of fluids. After so much chat we had all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it to the summit and were doing anything and everything we could to make it to the top. We were all determined that nothing short of bad weather meaning the guide insisting we turn around or blood coming out of our lungs would stop us
We got to base camp in time for a soup lunch and to dump our bags in the sleeping area upstairs before we got kitted up with our ice boots, crampons, picks and helmets for a practice trip to a glacier above camp. The guides checked that we could all walk in our crampons without getting them caught in our trousers and tripping up in a Carry-On style and then set up some ice climbing routes for practice.
After our day’s ice climbing on Fox glacier we were feeling quite comfortable on the ice but wow was it harder work climbing at 4,800m rather than sea level! We were all stubborn enough to make it to the top of the climbs but each of us came down with our whole arms cramping and shaking like leaves; Gordon was convinced for 5 agonising minutes that he had actually torn his arm muscle in two (his ice climbing technique is very basic-i.e. bad- and involves, much like his rock climbing, mostly hauling himself up with his arms!) before realising that, no, it really was that tired and full of lactic acid after just 5 minutes of (admittedly quite hard) work. We were beginning to get an idea of how tough exercising at this altitude is!
The weather was also looking decidedly dodgy for the whole afternoon; thick fog around us the whole time and periodic bouts of rain/sleet/snow, not ideal summiting conditions but we all followed the guides’ example and put this out of our minds as best we could. The weather would be what the weather would be
When we got back to base camp we were treated to a truly hideous dinner of a plate of overcooked rice with a piece of stringy chicken which, in the spirit of eating as much as we could, we all shovelled down and washed down with endless cups of coca tea on the basis it supposedly helps with the altitude. The downside to this however (especially for the girls) was that the toilet was a longdrop, outside, down an icy slope which was treacherous in the dark. It would have been an ignominious end to our summit attempt if one of us got injured trying to go to the loo before leaving base camp but luckily we all kept our footing. Happily we were all feeling ok with the altitude so far except for Ken who we think had a headache (based on a mime conversation) so went straight to bed. The rest of us managed to while away a couple of hours with cards and banter before crashing at the headily late hour of 8:30pm.
We all managed a surprisingly good night’s sleep with only mild snoring to disturb the dorm and next morning after breakfast we had to repack our bags to carry them and all our kit to the high camp. We had thought we didn’t need too much stuff for 3 days but with all the layers we needed (it was well below zero at night), two sleeping bags each (our thin ones as liners and some thicker mountain ones as the lady in the agency had admitted that the sleeping bags they would throw in as part of the trip were good to zero degrees but that it was likely to be much colder than that!), plus layers of clothes, gloves, balaclavas, ice boots, crampons, harnesses, helmets and all our other bits & pieces our packs felt heavier than ever as we set off
It didn’t sound too far a climb to high camp (it was only 400 vertical metres after all) but with our packs on at that altitude we found ourselves having to go ludicrously slowly and didn’t get there until lunchtime. On our way up we met the lucky climbers coming down who’d been up that morning with amazing weather - although only half of them made it to the top, which we were hoping we could better. Each and every person we passed on the way down had now become an expert mountaineers and would parcel out advice (sometimes less than useful), encouragement, or dire warnings of sickness to come. The final stretch to high camp was particularly hard as we were above the snowline but wearing our normal walking boots as the ice gear was packed inside our bags. As we were gasping for breath up the last slippery incline we had the extra treat of the wind blowing down from the long drop toilet at camp that had clearly been there for a very very long time.
With our packs off and our breath back we were able to appreciate the lovely views back down the valley from the camp with a cup of (coca) tea on the steps before forcing down the ironically better food at high camp whilst perusing the thousands of graffiti messages of the walls of the hut from previous climbers. These ranged from plenty of miserable ones we tried to ignore like "This is the worst thing I have ever tried to do" (we’re guessing they didn’t make it), to the obviously ecstatic “MOST AMAZING THING EVVVVVERRRR” (often Irish) to the cheesily inspirational “It is all about mind over matter
Once we ran out of graffiti to read the rest of the afternoon was spent napping in an attempt to get some rest and after supper had our final briefing from the guides. The whole walk would be on snow so it would be ice boots, crampons and helmets the whole way and each guide would take two of us and we’d be roped together as a trio for the day. This left the ladies with a logistical concern about how we would be able to go to the loo to which the guides breezily answered “don’t worry, we’ll help you”. Err, ok. The Dyces would be heading up first with our guide, Hilarion, followed by Ken, then Claire & Richard, with Matt & Tony bringing up the rear. Poor Ken was still not looking great and wasn’t eating much but seemed determined to try for the summit anyway and after the briefing we all went straight to bed (at 7:30 this time!) in a futile attempt to forget our nerves and excitement and try to sleep for a few hours.
All too soon our midnight wake up call had sounded and it was 11th April – our 2nd wedding anniversary and our summit day. Despite some incredible sounding hail earlier in the evening the weather was holding for us so we were go! After choking down some bread and more tea we were kitted up and heading on out by the light of our head torches just after 1am. After only 15 minutes we had to stop to refix Gordon’s crampons (which would keep falling off and in the end Hilarion literally hammered on to his boots with an ice axe) and looked back to see poor Ken behind us already panting on all fours in the snow
For the rest of the first hour or two of the climb we were both feeling absolutely fine and were perhaps getting a little cocky that this wasn’t going to be too difficult. There was one other group on the mountain too who left just ahead of us from another camp but within an hour three of them had had to turn back, as had Ken. We carried on stoically past them, heads down in the dark, in the “uno-dos-tres” rhythm of ice-axe, back leg, front leg, ice-axe, back leg, front leg. There wasn’t much breath left for chatter.
Being at the front we couldn’t tell how the rest of the group were doing and could only try to count the number of headtorches we could see to see how many people were still carrying on up. Hilarion, who for some reason was very amused to have two sisters on his trip, eventually agreed to radio down to Claire & Richard’s guide for us to check how they were doing. In response to Hilarion saying 'La Sarah necesita su hermana’ (literally, The Sarah needs her sister) their guide came back saying they were doing well, no problems, and Claire was ‘pequena pero poderosa’ (small but powerful). A brilliant description we thought.
Just after hearing they were doing well behind us we reached the first really steep section of the trail which entailed being really tightly roped together and basically crawling up the nearly vertical snow slope practically with hands and crampons and picks. Elegant it may not have been but we made it up, feeling like real mountaineers and suddenly could see the lights of La Paz and El Alto twinkling below us.
After that section we found the going a bit tougher but kept plodding on up. Sarah was feeling a little sick at this point and kept wanting to stop for ’10 seconds’ which would quickly become a couple of minutes until she was chivvied on (to which her response was not entirely polite but we’ll blame that on the altitude). After a particularly tough stretch up to 5,900m we suddenly turned a corner (literally) and found ourselves at the bottom of the final ridge up to the summit just as the sky was lightening. The ridge was incredible with big drops either side of pristine, wind-swept snow and as the scenery around the mountain lightened we could finally see the top. After a short, but frustrating pause behind a girl from another group who had an attack of vertigo and didn’t want to walk across the ridge, we plodded very slowly up the final few metres and found ourselves on the summit just before 7am
We spent some time drinking in the view and feeling more than a little pleased with ourselves. The weather was perfect and we could see down the Cordillera Real range, Mt Illimani, La Paz, over to Lake Titicaca and even to Sajama volcano on the Chilean border. As the sun came up, the view got clearer, the sky bluer and the mountain itself cast a monstrous shadow that stretched all the way out to the lake; unreal.
Huayana Potosi may not be a particularly difficult climb in the grand scheme of things but at that moment we felt on top of the world (perhaps second only to April 11th 2009)! After a mini-photo shoot by Hilarion we looked down and could now see Claire & Richard rounding the corner for the final ridge so started cheering them on. Hilarion was particularly amused to translate ‘Team Beard’ into Spanish and started chanting “Vamos Equipo Barba!” down the mountain to them. Matt & Tony had by now started heading back down but thankfully Hilarion let us wait for the others on the summit and they got there about 7:30am. It was a truly incredible achievement for Claire and Richard having arrived at altitude so recently; serious kudos to them.
After another extended photo shoot it was time to head back down
We were all on an absolute high that we’d made it and spent a very smug half hour enjoying the sunshine before realising that we still had to haul our big bags back down to base camp on tired legs and sore knees. Ugh. Before leaving high camp though it was our turn to graffiti the walls, and we like to think we struck the right balance between smugness and euphoria in our victory message from Team Beard. Having woken Ken up (who we had found in a heap in the sleeping area and were pleased to be able to rouse as it looked more than a little like he might be dead) we all set off for that final leg, and this time it was our turn to be the smug climbers dispensing expert advice of varying usefulness when we met the next day’s group toiling up
The journey back to La Paz was a write off as we slept all the way back to town, waking up in time to get off at the agency to collect our ‘We climbed Huayana Potosi’ t-shirts which will forever have pride of place in our wardrobes. We spent the afternoon eating pizza, showering and napping and emerged clean and (slightly) better rested to enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne that Claire & Richard had brought for our anniversary before meeting the others for drinks and dinner which we all (just) managed to stay awake through.
It may not have been a typical way to spend an anniversary nor even an especially difficult summit in mountaineering terms but getting to the top of Huayana Potosi was a real highlight of the trip and without a doubt the thing we’re proudest of achieving so far and it was particularly special to make it with Claire & Richard and on our anniversary: don’t know how we’ll top that next year though!